The Economy of Love

Trust and Abundance

Some years ago, I lived in a house with several other young Quakers, and we often pooled our resources for buying food. This meant that people often thought whatever was in the fridge was up for grabs. Once I went to the kitchen to make a sandwich, and discovered that the loaf of bread that I’d been planning on using had vanished.

At first, I was irked. If anyone had asked me for the bread I would have gladly given it to them, I thought, but this was going too far. I had plans for that bread, after all, plans which were now ruined. But as I calmed myself down, I realized how ridiculous this was. For starters, there was plenty of food that I was welcome to eat, and before long I was munching on leftovers. Secondly, it occurred to me that a lot of my irritation was from having my plans thwarted, despite the fact that the food I was eating now was probably rather healthier and tastier than what I’d intended to eat. And finally, I remembered that it was just bread: not worth arguing about.

That lesson has come back to me recently. Last week I was eying my rather minuscule paycheck before I tried to settle into my daily worship. My mind would not let go of financial worries until I heard, “Don’t worry about the money. All will be attended to.” Later that day, an unexpected check from my grandmother turned up in the mail.

That was plain enough… but soon thereafter, I stumbled on the video of a TED talk given by the musician Amanda Palmer. It’s worth watching in its entirety, but briefly, she makes two points about our modern-day economy: one, there is more value in the world than capitalism has measured with money, and two, there is an astonishing power in asking for money rather than charging, relying on love and generosity.

Then I visited the new-grown farm of some friends—including two Quakers who had lived with me in the house I mentioned earlier—and again got the sense that the universe was telling me something. Though I hadn’t planned on staying so long, they persuaded me to linger three days, with abundant hospitality. I initially demurred because I didn’t want to be a drain on their resources, but I earned my keep by helping with a few chores and with the spring planting—and by simply being a friendly face from outside the small and busy world they now inhabit.

There are two ways we can interpret all this: either I have figured out a high-concept way to justify my mooching, or the Spirit has just handed down a clear and lovely reminder of an old lesson: “You cannot serve both God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6.24b-25).

Or, to put it another way: let go of that loaf of bread, and let yourself be fed.

As I pondered this lesson, it dawned on me that it’s a lesson laced all through the Bible, in fact crucial to many of my favorite bits. The sabbath year commanded in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, for instance. In every seventh (sabbath) year, the people of Israel were commanded to stop farming and grow nothing, eating only what came up in the fields on its own, forgiving all debts, and freeing all slaves—called the Jubilee.1 In return, God promised that the sixth year’s harvest would be especially abundant, to help tide the people over (Exodus 23.10-13, Leviticus 25.2-7, Deuteronomy 15.1-18).

How much trust this would have required! The Jubilee resets the entire economy, and naturally it requires a monumental faith in God’s gifts for an agricultural society to abandon agriculture every seventh year. Looked at in this light, any loans given, and then forgiven, cease to be financial transactions at all, and themselves turn into gifts. Which leads us back to the Sermon on the Mount: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5.42).

If the humans held up their end of the bargain, then the partnership of Yaweh & Son would haul its weight, too.2 According to the revolutionary Gospel of Mark, Jesus showed this plain through his two miraculous feedings—first of the five thousand, then of the four thousand. In both cases, Jesus commands his disciples to surrender all their own food to feed everyone else, without telling them what will happen; it’s only after they make the sacrifice that the miracles occur. When feeding the five thousand, the disciples start out with five loaves and two fish; they end up with twelve baskets full of leftovers. When feeding the four thousand, they start with seven loaves and a few fish, and wind up with seven baskets (Mark 6.30-44, 8.1-9). Jesus calls attention to the difference in number a few verses later (8.19-21), pounding his point home to the uncomprehending disciples: when they were willing to give up less food to feed more people, they wound up with a basket of food apiece; when they gave up more food to feed fewer people, they still were well-fed afterward, but not by so much. Blessings are directly proportional to generosity.3

Put it all together, and we seem to have a Father-Son tag-team nudging the human economy of trade and transaction into an economy of generosity and gifts.

The Economy of Love

But what does an economy of love look like? How can we move from transaction to giving? And how well do these noble words hold up in reality?

First, remember those miraculous feedings. It is not just better to give than to receive: giving is a prerequisite for receiving. We all must create abundance somehow, if we are to rely on each other entirely. Second, remember the thousands who were fed. If we moved into an economy of generosity and love, then we will wind up with more than we started with, because of the abundance added into the system by the Light.

There’s a clear example of this to be found in the natural world (which is a decent place to look for confirmation of a divine command). The circle of life, with animals eating plants, and then being eaten in turn as they die and decompose, is far from a closed system. It works as well as it does because of a continual influx of free energy. Most life on Earth is entirely dependent, at one level or another, on the light of the sun. And the terrestrial life cycles which aren’t driven by the sun still require energy from outside the system, in this case from the heat of the earth’s core. Sun or earth, it doesn’t matter: we live because of energy provided by a force far more vast than us.

So we’ll have help. To build an economy of gift-giving, however, still requires immense trust. It means letting go of the security and self-reliance of savings and property. It requires abandoning plans along with the bread, and placing yourself in the hands of another. It requires trust in your fellows, belief in your friends and family, and great labor on behalf of each other. It requires living by courage rather than fear, and living by love rather than by transaction.

In short, it requires applying all the lessons of religion, Quakerism, and love in general to the checkbook and the bank account.

This is a terrifying thing, but if we live in love in all other ways, if we truly live in the life and power, then how can we not govern our money and our economics in the same way? If we trust our friends and Friends at all, then keeping the testimony of Integrity surely requires trusting them with our lives, and surely requires living up to their trust in return.

How does this play out in practice?

My examples will not fit for everyone, or even most, but here’s what I’ve done. The Light has steered me into a way where I live well but live poor; I have low-paying jobs that leave me free to travel and work on behalf of Friends. I eat good food and I do good work (I think), but I own little and I’m trying to own less. I’ve given up my car to take the bus, I’ve given up my apartment to live with others, I’ve given up eating out to live on beans and soup. In an increasing number of ways I have surrendered my independence and my desires to live as I feel I must: low, and with integrity. The biggest price may be yet to come, for I cannot see how to live this way and raise the family that I so desire. Soon I may be forced to choose between calling and children; at present, I would choose the call.

But it is not all sacrifices. I am increasingly coming to rest on the blessings of friends, and I hope that I can bless my friends in turn in other ways. Sometimes it’s helping with the planting, as I mentioned. Sometimes it’s providing more intangible benefits—traveling in support of Friends and meetings, offering what wisdom and light I have to those I love. I have not yet gotten to the point of standing outside meetinghouses with a sign that says “Will clerk for food,” but I am moving in that direction. I’m also looking for ways to invest my money in my community—cheerfully paying for the FGC Summer Gathering, for instance, as it helps perpetuate the Religious Society. My middle-class training rebels every step of the way, but with every further small miracle I find that I am walking the road appointed for me.

As I say, my own example will not fit for everyone. But there are other stirrings. I know a Quaker launching her own massage-therapy business, I know a Quaker who’s started a coffee-roasting company, I know a Quaker launching her music career and releasing her own albums, I know a Quaker who’s begun selling his custom spice mixes—and as I’ve alluded to now several times, I know several young Friends who are launching their own farm. (One of the most basic and most important methods of getting into the economy of love—though I wouldn’t call it easy—is growing some of our own food and sharing it.) None of these things would be possible without the support of their friends, family, and Friends. I myself am preparing to publish my stories online, with an eye to eventually self-publishing my work. Moving beyond the Quaker circuit, I’ve had the support of a good friend in helping me design and launch my website, which serves her by bolstering her resume. Musicians are starting to offer their music for download on a “pay what you want” model, as mentioned in Amanda Palmer’s talk. There’s a coffee shop just down the street from my house that works the same way.

On a grander scale, cooperatives are taking off as a business model—Bob’s Red Mill Flour is now worker-owned, for instance—and the internet is democratizing the investment process. I’ve participated in two absurdly successful Kickstarter campaigns, one asking for ten thousand dollars and raising a million, the other asking for two million dollars and getting it in a day. In both those cases such generosity came about because the people running the projects were beloved, trusted, and quite clever creators. Not every such venture will be so triumphant; in fact most will not be. A great many such ventures will entirely fail. But I think the lesson is clear: the old adage of “Do what you love and the money will follow” needs to be rewritten as “Love, and you shall live.”

Thus the economy of love has already been born, even as the economy of transaction, acquisition, and property is disrupted and distorted. The traditional methods of material success have led to abuses of power in the hands of a covetous, fearful few, while new methods, absurd on the surface and hinging on wildly improbable forces such as love and trust, are beginning to rise.

Meeting the Need

There’s real practicality in this, too—indeed, necessity. First, the economy of love offers a needed alternative. So many people in this world have been essentially enslaved by the demands of the economy of greed and debt; a pitiful example is how the Gulf Coast fishermen begged the president to allow more oil drilling after the 2010 oil spilling. Louisiana’s coast only has two industries, oil and fishing, and since the one had ruined the other, the victims had no choice. When all the bread has been polluted, the poor must plead for more poison. Likewise, many Friends in the west are adamantly against coal trains, but at present we have nothing to offer the coal miners and port workers who still need to eat. So building an entirely new economy is actually vital for justice, and would allow us to offer alternatives rather than just scolding.

Moreover, the economy of greed fuels so many of the abuses of power that have piled up over the generations—the corruption of government, the wars of acquisition, and the exploitation of workers, to name only a handful. The economic system is currently entirely rigged, controlled from beginning to end by the banks and a handful of catastrophically wealthy people; moreover, they are not content to simply own and control, but seem intent on gouging those beneath them in the pyramid for every last scrap. Many Quakers are actually doing pretty well in this current economy, but frankly, we shouldn’t be. We should be the first to jump ship, because we are currently faced with a choice of justice, goodness, and risk of poverty on one side, and comfort, wealth, and total abuse on the other. So building an alternative is in fact an act of resistance—you’ll find it listed as methods #190 and 192 on Gene Sharp’s list of nonviolent tactics—and an absolute imperative. We need to come up with new ways to live if we are to live with ourselves at all.

To our own need: a generation of wealthy Quakers is passing, and the Society has rested on their generosity for decades now, but this approach cannot survive that generation’s end. So I encourage Friends to consider finding ways to apply the wealth we still have to the new economy, the economy of love. Loan money to budding local companies, especially those launched by Quakers—or find a model you love, launch a new business yourself, and put out the call to your communities to support you as you begin. And at all points remember the principles of the economy of love: give, and give, and give, not from desire for gain or as part of a bargain, but in trust that those you help will help you back, just as those you love will love you in return.

I cannot stress enough that this is a chancy thing I am asking for, and I cannot stress enough that following this course leads without question to living with less. If you aspire to a million-dollar house, for example, you won’t get it through the economy of love—unless you share it with a dozen other people. But if we are Quakers because we want to be comfortable, are we really living our testimonies? The decision to follow a leading is usually hard, though often we can tell when we’re doing right by “way opening.” This is no exception; to let go of wealth, property, and the security takes enormous courage, even if I tell you that your Friends and the Light will lift you up. But that is the Quaker way in ministry, that is the Quaker way in peace and justice, and so it must be the Quaker way in money and economy.

In a strange way, an economy based on generosity and flexible pricing brings Quakerism full circle. Once upon a time, Friends instituted the fixed-pricing system because they felt that haggling lacked integrity. Now, however, the fixed-price model has led to abuses of its own. With the increasing divide between rich and poor, fixed pricing puts good products beyond the reach of those who need them most urgently, and forces the poor, going by price alone, to buy what’s cheap. But the cheapest food usually means the least nutritious, and the cheapest products usually mean the most prone to swift decay, and the cheapest anything usually means that there was exploitation and injustice somewhere in the production line.4 So while adopting a pay-what-you-can model, or in some way entering into a gift economy, reverses the letter of earlier Friends, I feel it maintains their spirit: to act with integrity and love toward all.

I encourage Friends to explore this new economy—and then I encourage Friends to stop dabbling, and embrace it in full. Do you feel encumbered by your possessions or your professions? Try living small: redefine “necessary” and give up what’s not! I once had a job that I needed in order to pay for my car, and a car that I needed in order to get to my job—and by redefining what I needed, I broke that cycle, and I have entered into a kind of poverty where I am rich, and entered into a life of dependence where I am so free. The poorer I become in the way of the world, the richer I become in the way of the Spirit.

“Give and you shall receive” is no pipe dream. “Do not worry about your life” is not a path to certain death. A new spirit of doing business aligns perfectly with an old spirit of doing justice, and a new economy of love has its roots in an old testament of love. If we embrace the economy of love, perhaps we may yet free ourselves, and make our own Jubilee.


1The rules are slightly different in each of the three books; Leviticus frees slaves every fifty years, and Deuteronomy frees them every seven; the term jubilee technically only applies to Leviticus. But with the term now firmly connected to the end of American slavery, I’ve lumped it all together and applied the name to the most stringent rules.

2If the One Who Is starts hauling its weight, that’s a lot of pull.

3Or in other words, according to Jesus, 5 – 5,000 = 12, while 7 – 4,000 = 7. I am deeply indebted to my lifelong friend and mentor Bruce McMenomy for this insight regarding the feedings.

4Note that through that exploitation, this forces the poor to prey on each other. Don’t forget that you may be among the exploited: so many abuses are funded by our own money, through taxation and destructive subsidies. And don’t forget that unless you have taken concrete steps to make sure you aren’t, you may also be among the exploiters. Finally, don’t forget that rage and guilt do nothing unless they fuel wise and righteous action. There are a lot of other ways that poverty and injustice could interact with the economy of love; I have no room here to explore them all, and I encourage you to come up with your own.


2 thoughts on “The Economy of Love

  1. Well said, Paul. As one of those “wealthy” Quakers you mention, whose generation is passing away, this gives me much cause for concern. It is a joy to be a part of a Meeting that has enough financial strength to be able to give generously to its memebers and attenders in need. Hmmm. Where does that financial strength come from? Not time for a longer essay, but there is much depth here.

  2. Hello, Paul,

    What a beautiful essay. I’m a newly convinced Quaker, but with long-time Quaker leanings, and I recently started giving money to whomever asked it of me, because I asked, finally, what Jesus would do. Feed the poor, of course. I am amazed at the release of anxiety this decision produced, and guess what? I don’t give away anymore money now then I did when I struggled with whom to give it too, judging their worthiness. I didn’t remember it was in the Sermon on the Mount. The gift economy, the economy of love…what a beautiful, just way of being.

    I gave away all I had for most of my life and worked until I was 69. I have come to old age with not much, but I always said, “The universe has always provided for me. Why will it stop now?” I’ve gotten more afraid, though. Because there are all those people who are not provided for. Thank you for your writing and thinking. I’ve no wonder why Glee included you in the email.

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